Posts tagged with: Scripture and tradition

I remember in a seminary class a student ripped into all the flaws and translation mistakes that mark the Authorized 1611 version of the King James Bible. The professor, of course well aware of any flaws in the translation, retorted that it was good enough for John Wesley and the rest of the English speaking world for well over three centuries. The professor made the simple point that it was the standard English translation for so long and there is really no way to diminish the depth of its impact upon the world and the English language. This week marks the 400th anniversary of the translation.

“Reap the whirlwind,” “a law unto themselves,” “labor of love,” and “the root of all evil” are just a few examples of vernacular expressions given to us through the King James translation. Its impact on political freedom, literature, and music is indeed deep. Those in the Protestant tradition should know the stories of the English translators, like William Tyndale, from which the King James Version is largely shaped. The path that translated the Scriptures into English was purchased with blood and often violent martyrdom.

In Benson Bobrick’s book Wide as the Waters: The story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired, he says of the translation:

In the end, the King James Version was such a book, wrote Macaulay (In his essay on Dryden) that ‘if everything else in our language should perish it would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.’ Its subsequent impact on English (and American) literature might be traced in a thousand ways – in the work of religious writers like Milton and Bunyan, or their more secular brethren like D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, and Defoe. Without the King James Version, it has been said, ‘there would be no Paradise Lost , no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Negro spirituals, no Gettysburg Address.’

On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis. The footage of earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the world. It was the largest television viewing audience ever at the time. Below is Lovell and Borman reading from the King James Version:

In his recent lecture “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity,” Rev. Robert Sirico reminded us that “We should not minimize the demands of the scripture but we should embrace them.” The quote was in context of caring for the vulnerable among us. He also talked about the need to be wholly devoted to the Lord despite the distractions of technology and prosperity in our midst.

At the same time, Rev. Sirico also admonished religious figures who offered superficial exegetical statements condemning all wealth. A great example being a topic I previously covered on the PowerBlog, “The What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. In my devotional reading this week, I came across a very appropriate quote by 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs. The words compliment the pastoral tone Rev. Sirico set during the lecture, and reminds us just how woefully inadequate superficial pronouncements are when it comes to the gospel call. Burroughs words are below:

Suppose a man had great wealth only a few years ago, and now it is all gone-I would only ask this man, When you had your wealth, in what did you reckon the good of that wealth to consist? A carnal heart would say, Anybody might know that: it brought me in so much a year, and I could have the best fare, and be a man of repute in the place where I live, and men regarded what I said; I might be clothed as I would, and lay up portions for my children: the good of my wealth consisted in this. Now such a man never came into the school of Christ to know in what the good of an estate consisted, so no marvel if he is disquieted when he has lost his estate. But when a Christian, who has been in the school of Christ, and has been instructed in the art of contentment, has some wealth, he thinks, In that I have wealth above my brethren, I have an opportunity to serve God the better, and I enjoy a great deal of God’s mercy conveyed to my soul through the creature, and hereby I am enabled to do a great deal of good: in this I reckon the good of my wealth. And now that God has taken this away from me, if he will be pleased to make up the enjoyment of himself some other way, will call me to honor him by suffering, and if I may do God as much service now by suffering, that is, by showing forth the grace of his Spirit in my sufferings as I did in prosperity, I have as much of God as I had before. So if I may be led to God in my low condition, as much as I was in my prosperous condition, I have as much comfort and contentment as I had before. – Jeremiah Burroughs, from his book Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.

Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.

There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.

As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.

Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”

Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.

On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:

The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

As I mentioned in Part 2, a common stereotype of Protestant ethics is that it is wedded to nominalism. While this may be true for some (particularly modern) Protestant ethicists, it is false for Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, two older Reformed moral theologians. Before showing how this is so, and still by way of introduction, I want to point to four doctrines where natural law exerts some influence.

First, it is important to recognize that none of the confessional documents of the magisterial Reformation — whether Lutheran or Reformed — rejected the doctrine of natural law. In fact, those documents universally state that Gentiles — though outsiders to God’s special revelation to Israel in the law and the prophets — remain accountable to the moral law by means of the natural knowledge of God’s will experienced in creation, conscience, and reason. Confessional examples abound to prove this point, but I will mention only what the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) states:

We teach that the will of God is set down unto us in the law of God; to wit, what He would have us to do, or not to do, what is good and just, or what is evil and unjust. We therefore confess that ‘the law is holy . . . and good’; and that this law is, by the finger of God, either written in the hearts of men, and so is called the law of nature, or engraven in the two tables of stone, and more largely expounded in the books of Moses.

This confession, like so many other sixteenth-century confessions, makes an explicit identification of the law written on the heart in Romans 2 with the natural law.

Second, natural law played a significant role in the three uses of law articulated by the Reformers. The first use of law is to convict of sin by taking away all natural presumption of righteousness. The Reformers made frequent appeal to the conscience’s imprinted knowledge of right and wrong in this respect. The second use of law is to maintain order. “Since the devil reigns in the whole world,” states Luther, “God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances to at least bind his hands and keep him from raging at will.” The third use of law is to exhort believers to ongoing obedience and gratitude. “The law is to the flesh,” says Calvin, “like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.”

Third, while the Reformers famously emphasized Scripture as the ultimate authority for doctrine and Christian living, the modern doctrine of sola scriptura falsely pits the Reformers against the Scholastics on the issue of tradition. Unlike modern Protestants, the Reformers did not pit Scripture and tradition against each other as antithetical sources of authority, even though they did affirm the normative priority of Scripture in theology and ethics. The Reformers also did not play special revelation off against general revelation, as tends to happen today, both were considered legitimate forms of revelation that served distinct roles in theology. This is why the modern Protestant rejection of natural law in favor of supernaturally revealed legal or moral instruction is skewed in relation to the thought of the Reformers.

Fourth, the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured. The Canons of Dort, a doctrinal standard issued by the Synod of Dort (1618-19), for example, affirms the existence of natural law but also points to its insufficiency:

There remain in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.

Without this affirmation of the natural knowledge of God, the result for ethics would be pessimism toward any transcultural, universal moral ontology. The alternative, then, would be to place ethics exclusively within the sphere of redemption and the new creation. If those “glimmerings of natural light” were wiped out, it would be difficult to find a bridge to the public sphere in which Christians and non-Christians could work side by side.

In Part 4 we will begin looking closely at Peter Martyr Vermigli.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.